Introduction: Economic Geography in the South

By Wheeler, James O. | Southeastern Geographer, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Economic Geography in the South


Wheeler, James O., Southeastern Geographer


The subdiscipline of economic geography has evolved in essential parallel with the broad field of human geography, following the regional, spatial, and contemporary diversified approaches. The subfield has also mirrored shifts in the U.S. and global economy from agriculture industry and services, especially the current advanced or producer services. Research in economic geography in the South has perhaps somewhat lagged behind that of national trends as reflected, for example, in the journal Economic Geography, which began publication in 1926. In the United States the regional approach in economic geography may be traced back to the early 20th century and was the dominant methodology until the 1960s. The regional viewpoint typically focused on a single city, county, or a specific study area. This case study was descriptive rather than analytical, often included a historical perspective, and frequently was based on field observation. It was during the late 1950s that the so-called spatial and quantitative tradition gained a foothold in economic geography, principally in urban and transportation geography. Spatial analysis comprised three "revolutions" in human/ economic geography: a definitional, a theoretical, and a quantitative change. The current diversified characterization of the subfield is related to the links with modern social and cultural geography, fully tied to contextual issues. Economic geography is now viewed, not in isolation, but as part of a much larger human framework.

The nature of research in economic geography has changed greatly in the Southeastern Geographer over the past 50 years. First was the sudden application of spatial analysis during the 1960s and 1970s, followed by the decline in this methodology. The 1970s saw the rise of Marxist interpretations and the interest in social theory, followed by the "new" economic geography, with the merger of cultural, social, and political geography emphasizing contextual issues. More recently, global attention intensified with the recognition of the role of multinational corporations, The importance of knowledge-based decisions increasingly became a basic issue. More recent research foci in economic geography can be seen in the British-based International Journal of Economic Geography, first published in 2000.

Analysis of articles published in the Southeastern Geographer sheds some light on the position of economic geography in the South. Economic geography research on the South, as articulated in publications in the regional journal of the Southeastern Division of the Association of American Geographers, follows the national trend. Overall, the proportion of publications on economic topics in the journal has decreased somewhat during the past three decades from 42 percent to 29 percent. The absolute number of papers in economic geography has basically remained the same during the last three decades, however, owing to the greater number of total articles published since 1980. The number of agricultural as well as industrial subjects has declined since the 1960s, and that of general urban economic topics, especially on advanced service topics, has grown. Location theory, once at the forefront of economic geography, has declined in popularity as well as in enrollment in classes on spatial theory.

The articles in this special issue on the economic geography of the U.S. South reflect the contemporary status of the field. Susan Walcott treats the local/global nexus in the unique North Carolina furniture industry, emphasizing the competitive role of China. Walcott's case study of this Piedmont industry is firmly grounded in the appropriate theoretical literature and carefully assesses the changing cost of transportation, the concept of the global value chain, clusters, and role of the "spatial fix." She focuses on "the political context of policies at the national, state, and local scales, decisions of individuals.... and the local culture of social economic relationships," as well as on the importance of particular leaders in the spread of innovations within the industry, all major features of contemporary economic geography. …

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